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RECOVERY GOES SLOWLY FOR OFFICER HURT IN SHOOTOUT

Medina Police Lt. Michael Russell almost lost his life -- but may have saved a few others -- during a shootout in a Medina pharmacy three weeks ago.

Now Russell lies in the Erie County Medical Center's Intensive Care Unit Trauma Center, slipping back and forth between critical and serious condition, after undergoing surgery 10 times.

Though he remains conscious, Russell, 31, is heavily medicated and on a ventilator, and he hasn't yet talked. But he opens his eyes, smiles and responds to familiar voices.

His wounds -- he was shot four times -- are starting to heal. As he continues what figures to be a lengthy recovery, Russell clearly has taken on the role of community hero, at a time when public appreciation of police officers and firefighters never has been higher.

"I kind of know how President Bush feels," said Medina Police Chief Jose Avila, who called Russell both his right-hand man and his best friend. "On one Tuesday afternoon, an individual walked into our community and shattered us."

For Judy Russell, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., seven days after her son's shooting have multiplied her anger by a factor of thousands.

And the shooting has increased her compassion for the terrorists' victims.

"I think about all the families who have experienced a deeper level of grief than we have gone through with Mike, because they lost their loved ones," she said. "I think of those families every single day."

Her son remains seriously wounded, but the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center remind her how fortunate he and his family are.

"As he gets better, I feel so thankful that we were spared, that Michael was spared," his mother said. "I think about that every single day, and I'll think about it every day for the rest of my life."

Russell was shot four times on the afternoon of Sept. 4. One bullet struck him above his left nipple, then ricocheted into the left side of his abdomen, where another bullet struck. The other two bullets hit him in the left arm and the right lower leg.

Surgeons have removed his spleen and gallbladder. He also suffered a fractured leg and internal damage. But family members said some of the worst wounds, in his abdomen, appear to be healing. The greatest risks are the possibilities of infection and pneumonia.

"I think we've turned the corner," Judy Russell said. "He looks good, and his color is good. He looks, to a certain extent, like the old Mike. When I go in and say, 'Hi, Mike, it's your mom,' he always opens his eyes and smiles."

It's easy to toss around the label of "hero," but police have said they believe Russell probably saved some lives in shooting and fatally wounding a man who fired at him first inside Rosenkrans Pharmacy.

At least six people -- the pharmacist, three employees and two customers -- were in the Main Street pharmacy when Peter F. Novellin, 38, of Albion, opened fire on Russell after trying to have a forged prescription filled.

'Beyond the call of duty'

If Russell hadn't returned fire, the man could have walked out of the pharmacy and started shooting other civilians and arriving police officers, authorities say.

"Mike Russell was the wall that stood between the shooter and civilians who would have been injured," Avila said. "I think the community realizes that what Mike Russell did was beyond the call of duty."

His mother also fears what would have happened if her son hadn't acted so quickly, the way he was trained to do, after the other man pulled out his own handgun.

"Once you shoot a police officer, what is it to shoot anyone else?" she asked. "Michael knew what he had to do, and he did it. If he had hesitated, I think the tragedy would have been much greater."

On her son's 30th birthday, Judy Russell gave him a story she wrote about him, titled "Darn-Near Perfect."

"He was darn-near perfect before," she quipped. "Now everyone else knows he's darn-near perfect."

Russell's injuries have convinced Avila that his lieutenant acted properly in confronting the shooter. The three bullets that struck the left side of Russell's body suggest that he had turned to the right, exposing his left side but protecting his right hand, which was reaching for his service weapon.

"Mike is a hero, period," his chief said.

The community response, Mrs. Russell said, has been overwhelming.

From Buffalo to Lockport, from Medina to Rochester, hundreds of yellow signs with blue writing have popped up on Western New York lawns.

"We're all praying for Mike Russell," the signs say, in addition to listing his Medina police badge number, 234.

The Russells even pass one of those signs as they get off the Kensington Expressway's Grider Street exit, about half a mile from ECMC.

A Web site -- www.tigdata.net/mikerussell -- has been set up with information on Russell. More than $15,000 has been raised on his behalf, at a recent fund-raiser and through the Lt. Michael Russell Fund at all local HSBC bank branches. The family has received more than 200 cards. On Friday, Mrs. Russell read her son some letters from an Oak Orchard School fourth-grade class in Medina, a kindergarten class whose teacher has a father in the intensive care unit, and a state trooper's son.

Russell already has received visits from Jamestown Police Officer David Mitchell, who was shot two years ago, and from a Rochester police officer seriously injured on the job about two years ago. And the decor in his hospital room includes a tiny police helicopter from the children of a Rochester officer shot a few years ago.

The best visit, the best gift, may have come from Russell's maternal grandmother, Wynne Brandenburg.

"When she came in Wednesday, he opened his eyes and had the biggest smile on his face," Mrs. Russell said. "That made her day."

A seven-year veteran of the Medina force, Russell rose to second in command within five years. Among his other roles, he writes grants for the department, he's an excellent marksman, and he was instrumental in helping set up an Emergency Response Team, similar to a SWAT team, and an after-school program for children.

The Russell family puts in long hours at ECMC. Mrs. Russell, a nurse who runs her own medical consulting firm, spends about six hours a day there. Her ex-husband, Michael's father, James, maintains a similar vigil, and Michael's sister, Nicole, an attorney in Atlanta, has flown back home on weekends to see her brother.

In good hands

Michael may be in the Trauma Center for weeks, even months. Mrs. Russell calls the staff there the best-trained one she has ever encountered in the medical profession.

Nobody knows how complete a recovery Michael Russell can make.

"I think the good Lord will definitely make sure Mike leaves the hospital, and if the good Lord is willing, maybe he will be back working (with the Medina police)," Avila said. "We're optimistic."

If her son is physically capable of it, Mrs. Russell believes he'll want to return to the Medina force. And she wouldn't be surprised if he makes it.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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